WWII Nurses
From its inception in 1901, the Army Nurse Corps had been an all-white institution, but
when the US Army began a program of rapid expansion in 1940 that necessitated an
increase in the size the War Department steadfastly clung to its official policy of racial
segregation and continued that policy during World War II despite protests from black
leaders and black soldiers.  Army officials justified this policy, insisting that the Army
was a servant of the state, not an agent of change, and that the most efficient system of
race relations would be one modeled after the constitutional ruling of “separate but
equal”. This policy meant that the in the Army facilities for blacks and whites would be
kept separate but not always equal. In 1940 the Army Nurse Corps remained an all
white organization. But in 1940-41 black organizations put pressure on Congress and on
the White House for a change in the recruiting policy.

The campaign to open the ranks of the Army Nurse Corps to black nurses was led by Mabel Keaton Staupers, RN, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses’(NACGN).  Enlisting the support of Marty Beth Bethune, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others, Staupers convinced the Surgeon General James C. Magee to accept a quota of 48 black nurses to be commissioned in the Army Nurse Corps.  The original quota of 48 women was divided.  24 nurses went to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and 24 went to Camp Livingston, Louisiana.  When Camp Livingston closed, the unit serving there was dispersed to Ft. Bragg and Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. These first black Army nurses were graduates of recognized nursing schools and hospitals all over the US including Kansas City General Hospital, No. 2 which had the largest number of the original quota of nurses, Provident Hospital, Chicago; Provident Hospital, Baltimore; Lincoln School of Nursing and Harlem Hospital, NY.; Freedman’s Hospital, Washington, DC, and others.

The Army Nurse Corps accepted only a small number of black nurses during World War II.  When the war ended in September 1945 just 479 black nurses were serving in a corps of 50,000 because a quota system imposed by the segregated Army held down the number of black enrollments.  In 1943, the Army limited the number of black nurses in the Nurse Corps to 160.  They were only allowed to care for black troops in black wards or hospitals. Unfavorable public reaction and political pressure forced the Army to drop its quota system in 1944.

Subsequently, about 2,000 black students enrolled in the Cadet Nurse Corps program, and nursing schools for blacks benefited from increased federal funding. By the end of war, black nurses had served in Africa, England, Burma, and the Southwest Pacific.

The first black medical unit to deploy overseas was the 25th Station Hospital Unit. The unit contained 30 nurses. The unit went to Liberia in 1943 to care for US troops protecting strategic airfields and rubber plantations.  Malaria was the most serious health problem.  Much of the care malarial patients required was routine and could be rendered by trained corpsmen. The nurses felt superfluous and unit morale declined. The nurses were recalled late in 1943 because of poor health and low morale.

Some were sent to general and station hospitals in the United States; others went to the 383rd and 335th Station Hospitals near Tagap, Burma, where they treated black troops working on the Ledo Road.  Another group of fifteen nurses deployed to the Southwest Pacific Area in the summer of 1943 with the all black 268th Station Hospital. The 268th Station Hospital was the only all black hospital in the US Army.  It was activated at Fort Huachuca.

In June 1944 a unit of sixty-three nurses went to the 168th Station Hospital in Warrington, England to care for German prisoners of war.  Nurses were given a three-week orientation and training program prior to assignment to the 168th.  Originally this unit had been an all white hospital assigned to Iceland before the war and then transferred to England.  The white nurses were disbanded and transferred to other stations in England because of poor morale. 

They were replaced with black nurses under the supervision of white Medical officers-Chief Nurse Frances K. Crouch and Lt. Marjorie Traux. Initially, the 168th was changed to an entirely prisoner of war hospital but it gradually reverted to an American convalescent hospital on December 6, 2944. By late December, the 168th had transferred its prisoner-of-war cases and the 1,431 beds became occupied by Americans. The nurse’s social life in England suffered because the hospital was not located near a concentration of black American troops. With the absence of racial discrimination in England, it was difficult to find many Negro officers who were interested in associating with Negro women. Black WAC’s shared this sad fact of life in wartime England.

The 335th located in Burma was a 100-bed unit staffed by black medical personnel, including sixteen physicians and sixteen nurses under Chief Nurse Lt. Agnes Glass. Three of the nurses including Lt. Daryle E. Foster had served in Liberia with the Second Station Hospital.  Nurses enroute to the Burma theatre traveled through the Assam province. 

For four weeks they nursed Chinese troops who were fighting in Burma. The soldiers had wounds from artillery, tank, land mines, hand-to-hand combat wounds, animal attacks, snakebites, accidents, malaria, and combat fatigue.

They lived in British tents with dirt floors.  Frogs and lizards ran or hopped around the tent floors.  They had to upturn and examine or shake clothing or supplies left lying about before using.  The 335th was located at mile 80 along the Ledo road. The site had been General Stilwell’s headquarters.  It was surrounded by jungle and the hospital was in a clearing. The nurses lived two to a room divided by a bamboo wall from two other nurses sharing the other room. The hospital was a similar structure except for the surgical building, which had a concrete floor. All the buildings had electrical power from generators. Nurses worked six hours a day or 24 hours if the road to their quarters was washed out.

Many black nurses served at camps in the United States that housed enemy prisoners of war. Frances Dyer Edwards and Elinor Powell Albert were two of these nurses. Elinor Albert said that when the black troops (92nd and 93rd) moved out to go to Italy, the nurses were brought together by the CO and told that the nurses were going to be shipped to POW camps since there had been too much fraternization between POW’s and the white nurses stationed there. The relationship between the black nurses and prisoner at the POW camps was often amiable despite the language barrier.  Elinor Albert later married one of the German prisoners. The relationship between white US Army officers and black nurses was not always amiable. Many black nurses serving at army posts in the US experienced racial discrimination along with the usual rigors of army discipline.

When the war ended there were 500 black nurses in the Corps including 9 captains and 115 first lieutenants. They served in 4 general, 3 regional, and 11 station hospitals in the United States and overseas. They served in hospitals in the continental United States and overseas in Warrington, England; with the 268th Station Hospital in the Southwest Pacific and in the Philippines; with the 338th and 25th Station Hospitals in the China-Burma-India Theatre; and with the 25th Station hospital in Liberia. Black nurses also cared for prisoners of war in eight locations in the United States and served at the hospital at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.  
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Uniforms of WII Nurses




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